The Hands of Mary: States of Mind in the Annunciate

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In many paintings the hands of the Virgin - particularly of the so called "Virgin Annunciate" - are not a mere descriptive detail, but the rendering of a gesture language, referred to emotional moods or states of mind. Almost a mimic dance, whose sense transcends its meaning itself.

Text of The Hands of Mary: States of Mind in the Annunciate

Pino Blasone

The Hands of Mary States of Mind in the Virgin Annunciate

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Montesiepi: Annunciation, sinopia Humiliatio Aber wunderbar sind dir/ die Hnde benedeit./ So reifen sie bei keiner Frau,/ so schimmernd aus dem Saum: And yet your hands most wonderfully/ reveal his benison./ From womans sleeves none ever grew/ so ripe, so shimmeringly; these are some words directed to Mary by the archangel Gabriel, in a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, issued in 1902 and titled Verkndigung: Die Worte des Engels (Annunciation: Words of the Angel).[1] Of course, they are fruit of a literary imagination. There is no literal trace of them in the Scripture, peculiarly in Lukes Gospel where the Annunciation is narrated. Nevertheless, the German poet could well be impressed by so many paintings, where the hands of the Virgin are depicted. Such a representation is not only a descriptive detail. Not seldom, it is the figurative rendering of a gesture language, referred to emotional moods or states of mind. Almost a mimic dance, whose sense transcends its explainable meaning itself. As to those states of mind, they were analysed and codified already in the late Middle Ages, mostly as an interpretation and comment on Lukes Gospel (1: 26-38). Pertinent examples are De laudibus Virginis matris by Bernard of Clairvaux, in the 12th century; the

Meditationes vitae Christi by Giovanni de Cauli or John of Caulibus (Pseudo-Bonaventura; 13th century); the Sermones de Annuciatione by Fra Roberto Caracciolo of Lecce (15th century). De Cauli and Caracciolo explicitly allude to their visual representation. That was a time, when one language let the intellectuals communicate in large part of Europe. But art was a far more popular one, all the more in the great majority of illiterate people.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Montesiepi: Annunciation, detail In the latest Latin work, we can even find a list of stages crossed by Marys soul during the event of the Annunciation: conturbatio (initial surprise and trouble), cogitatio (reflection, subsequent to the disconcerting announcement), interrogatio (inquiry, concerning the words of the angel), humiliatio (humble acceptance and faithful submission to Gods will), meritatio (intimate joy, thanks to the miraculous conception of Jesus). Indeed, especially St. Bernard regards the humiliatio as a free choice by the full of grace. No doubt, those concepts had an ascendancy on the artists. Yet sometimes they visually anticipated, even exceeded their verbal formulation, in accordance with the true spirit of art. Let us consider the case of an Annunciation by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Oratory of St. Galgano at Montesiepi, not far from Siena in central Italy. Dating back to the first half of the 14th century and very deteriorated, the fresco was detached during a restoration in 1966. Under that, a sinopia was discovered, quite different from the final picture. This preparatory drawing is a typical scene of conturbatio. The Virgin looks so perturbed by the apparition of the angel, that, instinctively, her arms clasp a near column. Evidently, later the painter or his clients had a rethinking about. In the finished depiction, Marys hands are folded on her breast, to signify a full assent to her exceptional lot. What may be included into a typology of the so defined humiliatio, about a century before the classification by Caracciolo. More surprising is the resemblance between Montesiepis sinopia and a Virgins figure study, for a stained glass window in St. Martins2

on-the-Hill Church (Scarborough, England, circa 1862; now in the Tate Collection at London). Sure, the author Edward C. Burne-Jones could not know that Lorenzettis precedent. Once again though, the resulting Annunciation is unlike its preparatory drawing.

E. C. Burne-Jones, London: study for an Annunciation, detail Conturbatio If we wish to detect some possible reason for the changing representation in the work of Lorenzetti, we might rather read the Meditationes by John of Caulibus, which had a wide circulation then: Non fuit turbata turbatione culpabili, nec de visione Angeli. [] Turbata fuit in sermone eius, cogitans de novitate talis salutationis. [] Commendabatur enim quod esset gratia plena, et quod Dominus erat secum, et quod erat benedicta super omnes mulieres: at humilis non potest sui commendationem sine rubore et turbatione audire (She was perturbed for no culpable motive, nor by the vision of the angel but by his words, since thoughtful about the novelty of his salutation. [] In fact, he had praised her thrice: as full of grace, telling that God was with her, and that she was blessed above all women. Indeed, no humble person might listen to be exalted likewise, without perturbation and blush).[2] Probably, Lorenzettis patrons or counsellors valued a humble image of the Madonna as a model more proper and edifying than a disquieting one. Such an iconography will be adopted in most further Annunciations, so that Marys arms or hands crossed on her breast will become almost a standard in this figurative genre. What does not mean the examples of conturbatio are few, in the history of art. In the Cestello Annunciation by Sandro Botticelli, Marys hands are hold out in a defensive attitude (Florence: Uffizi Gallery; ca. 1489).3

In an Annunciation by the Perugino, both palms of the hands are vertically raised and similarly positioned but not opposite the angel, what suggests a surprise prevailing on perturbation (Fano: Santa Maria Nova; 1498). In the Uffizi Gallery, we can also admire the Annunciation and Two Saints by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi (ca. 1330). Here one hand of the Virgin is lifted to close on her neck the dark veil, framing her fair face. It looks surprised and cautious at once. Like in so many paintings of this genre, the other hand rests on a Bible, she has been interrupted while reading. Often, the homage of a lily by the angel may look like an extensive invitation too, to interpret the holy text with a pure mind.

Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi, Florence: Annunciation and Two Saints, detail More theatrical is the movement, such as figured in the Annunciations by the Tintoretto (Venice: Scuola di San Rocco; 1582-87) or by Lorenzo Lotto (Recanati, Italy: Pinacotecha; ca. 1527). In the former Mary is clearly frightened, inside the disquieting interior of a decaying mansion, probable allegory of painters places and times. In the latter both hands are open, raised nearly to the level of her face, in a popular attitude of wonder. She avoids looking at the angel, kneeling on the floor behind her. Her eyes are lifted up, the gaze turned toward the heaven, as to beg protection from that uncanny presence. The disquiet roused into the everyday life is stressed by the nice trick of a home cat, springing aside as scared by that supernatural intrusion. Another Lottos example of conturbatio is the Virgin Annunciate in the Church of Sts. Vincent and Alexander (Ponteranica, Italy; 1527). Anyhow, such an animation becomes more intense in the Baroque period, since congenial to its style. That is smartly evident in a4

Virgin Annunciate by a Florentine anonymous, today in the Dulwich Picture Gallery at London. One hand close to her heart, the palm of the other is raised up, turned toward the invisible angel. At the same time she stares downward, what for certain may be interpreted as reserved modesty, but also as a gaze sunk into the depth of an inmost dimension. Yet the hardest expression of a conturbatio is not artistic, in a strict figurative sense. Rather, it is a literary one. In his modern poem The Mother of God, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats makes Mary herself narrate her experience. The initial allusion is to an odd tradition, which may be found in some apocryphal gospels, of a miraculous fecundation by the way of an ear of her. Here the perturbation grows as a sacred terror: The threefold terror of love; a fallen flare/ Through the hollow of an ear;/ Wings beating about the room;/ The terror of all terrors that I bore/ The Heavens in my womb.// Had I not found content among the shows/ Every common woman knows,/ Chimney corner, garden walk,/ Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes/ And gather all the talk?// What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,/ This fallen star my milk sustains,/ This love that makes my hearts blood stop/ Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones/ And bids my hair stand up?.[3]

Sandro Botticelli, Florence: Cestello Annunciation, detail Interrogatio Just varying a bit the order, let us respect the sequence established by Fra Roberto Caracciolo (and, long before him, by the Evangelist himself). After a first moment of bewilderment and before her acceptance of Gods demand, this is the time when Mary speaks to the angel. Obviously, she asks how it is possible the unnatural conception announced by him. Gabriel will answer what reliably she already knows: nothing is impossible to Gods will. The Virgin herself would be the best witness of such a possible impossibility. This is not a private miracle, since it is going to interfere with history itself.5

By an artist, it ought to be a problem translating the connotation of the interrogatio into a pictorial scene. For instance, one hand of an Annunciate by Francesco Vanni has its open palm turned upward so as her gaze, in a familiar inquiring gesture (Siena: Church of the Servites; 1588). The solution of Antonello of Messina, in his celebrated Virgin Annunciate at the National Museum of Palermo (ca. 1476), was to portray a previous instant. The lips of the Madonna are still closed. Yet one of her hands, stretched out toward a virtual interlocutor, anticipates the question she is going to pronounce. Certainly, this painting is one of the masterpieces of the Renaissance. There is something enigmatic inside it, not less than in the famous Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci at Paris,